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Today, it seemed as if the Church has turned a whole bundle of pages, made a full 180 on several high profile subjects and basically “got with the times”. Of course, reality is quite different, but you wouldn’t know it from certain sources, both left and right.
The Relatio post disceptationem, which was presented today by Cardinal Péter Erdö, summarises the discussions and presentations of the first week of the Synod, and tries to paint a picture of the major topics discussed and field of further study and development identified. As such there is nothing conclusive in it, nothing authoritative, nothing but a update on where the discussion now stand.
In order to understand what the contents of the document mean, it is always good to read all of it. Not just part 3, which outlines the pastoral areas that the discussion will focus on, but also part 1 (the challenges of the family in our modern world) and part 2 (the Biblical and traditional basis of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family). Only when read together can each part be understood fully and flights of fancy and wishful thinking be avoided.
We must never forget the theme of this assembly of the Synod: The pastoral challenges of the family on the context of evangelisation. There are several keywords here: The Synod participants will deal with pastoral challenges, not dogmatic. The teachings of the Church are not under discussion. It is about the family: their challenges, not the teachings, are what dictate the discussions. The context is that of evangelisation: pastoral care for families, the ways of facing their challenges, has evangelisation as its goal.
The outlines, which are not recommendations, and certainly not changes in the Church’s teaching, deal with people, and the Church has never ceased encouraging the innate dignity of human beings and the respect we are obliged to have for it. That is regardless of their gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, language or whatever element of their being you’d care to mention. It’s in the catechism, so anyone displaying surprise as the Relatio‘s emphasis on respect for all people, has some reading up to do.
The Relatio post disceptationem is interesting, worth reading and studying, and a good reminder of the importance of mercy, but it is not the earthquake some have made it out to be.
Read it, all of it. Don’t be satisfied with headlines.
Photo credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images Europe
It is a shame that none of the interventions presented by cardinals, bishops, laity and other participants at the Synod are made public, a sentiment I share with more than a few, among them Cardinal Gerhard Müller. But we can take a look at at least one, which was given yesterday afternoon by Godfried Cardinal Danneels, the archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels. Cardinal Danneels was one of the Synod fathers personally selected by Pope Francis.
^Cardinal Danneels (right) leaves one of the Synod sessions. Also pictured are Bishop Anders Arborelius (left) and Cardinal Béchara Raï (centre).
“God is just and merciful. He can’t contradict himself. He can separate good and evil in a great straddle. We, we have difficulty because we are only poor ballet dancers for a moment in the whole of history.
It is up to us, poor sinners, to find ways of mercy which do not deny the truth; to find a way for the times in which we live and for every culture. It is up to us to find ways of mercy.
I will limit myself to a single way of mercy, which is so necessary today. Many are confronted with the failure of their first marriage and have committed themselves to a second marriage which, however, is neither valid for the Church, nor sacramental. Today there are many people in this situation. What do we do for them? They often desire regularisation but known that there are no options. While many fall away there are others who suffer much. What do we do for all these brothers and sisters who desire to be able to marry anew for the Church?
I regularly think that we could established something in the Church like the catechumenate and the ordo penitentium of the past, for which the Church could be a mother. Actually, what matters is more is to organise some pastoral care for divorced and remarried people, and less about an institutional change. How to form priests and laity for this specific ministry like, in the past, for the catechumens and for those in the process of receiving pardon for their sin?
In the first place we are invited to greatly respect our brothers and sisters, the divorced and remarried. Mercy starts where we have unconditional respect for all who want to live within the Church but can’t marry again for the Church and receive Communion.
The same respect is due to every actual marriage. Some carry within them the seeds waiting for spring. Very often divorced and remarried faithful are consciously or subconsciously looking for a way out. But there is no way out. In many cases couples are on the way to the ideal they so desire. Respect must be the ministry of our Mother the Church a ministry which sees the growth, the journey.
How to create space in the mission of the Church for a ministry for divorced and remarried people? In the first place, let us try and find these people. Many are hiding and dare not speak about it, sometimes not even with their partner. There is much hidden suffering. It is up to us priests to search for the sheep who want to come home but do not have the courage to say so.
Let us invite these people to come together, to meet and listen to one another, but in the presence of the shepherd. A shepherd who listens with his heart. There should be no immediate focus on the painful question of Communion being denied to those who have entered into a second marriage. True listening carries healing within it.
It is so important to speak with them, to let them speak about the beauty of marriage and the Christian family. Beauty is so powerful! This is obviously not esthetic beauty, but beauty who is the sister of truth and goodness. According to Aristotle “beauty is truth in all its glory”. Pulchrum est splendor veri.
Among our contemporaries there is much scepticism about the truth; even goodness can discourage, but beauty disarms. Beauty heals. Archimedes said about our world today, “Give me a place to stand and I will lift the world.”
The divorced and remarried are not the only suffering children, but there are far more than we think. My appeal – in all simplicity – is: to love God’s children. Their pain and suffering is often great. They don’t immediately ask for the regulations of the Church to change. Their cry is rather one to the shepherds with their hearts in the right place, why carry the wounded lamb on their shoulders. Beauty disarms. We hold the cards: there is indeed nothing more beautiful than Christian marriage and a deeply faithful family. But we must communicate the truth to divorced and remarried people – delicately – with the words of Saint Francis in mind, which he spoke to the superiors of his small communities, “never let anyone leave you in sadness”.
+ Godfried Cardinal Danneels,
Rome, 8 October 2014
Photo credit: Siciliani Gennari/SIR
^Orthodox metropolitan of Belgium, Athenagoras, who is a guest at the Synod, snapped this photo of Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels. Also visible, at the far right, is Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm.
^Cardinal Eijk (second from the right) is seen in this still from the CTV live stream, seated between Cardinals John Tong Hon of Hong Kong and George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamaly. On the other side of Cardinal Alencherry sits Cardinal Marx.
As the Metropolitans of the Low Countries, to name but two, got down to business, the rest of the world was treated to a mixture of openness and secrecy about the Synod’s deliberations. On the one hand the first session was streamed live, but on the other the remainder will take place behind closed doors. And unlike previous Synod assemblies, the contributions of the speakers will also not be published. Instead, there will be summaries of the day’s proceedings and several participants will take part in daily press briefings.
In his opening address to the Synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri told the participants not to use their Twitter accounts in the Synod hall. That makes sense, but let’s hope they’ll continue using them outside the hall. Related to that, there are a few blogging bishops and cardinals at the Synod. In addition to those populating my sidebar, I have also come across the blogs of Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, of Gatineau in Canada, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville in the US.
The official Vatican website on the Synod also has a bunch of texts and also video interviews with participants in several languages.
Today, Cardinals Maradiaga (Tegucigalpa and the Council of Cardinals), Marx (Munich and the Council of Cardinals), Napier (Durban), Sistach (Barcelona), Erdö (Budapest) and Archbishop Okada (Tokyo) took the first sit-down with the press. Their words there gave some hints at what was discussed in the second congregation, which took place this afternoon.
Cardinal Maradiaga spoke about the importance of marriage preparation which, he said, should start after Confirmation. Cardinal Sistach stressed the importance of the bishops staying as close as possible to the people and their lives, so as to formulate a realistic response. Archbishop Okada added that in Japan it was the laity who kept the faith alive and passed it on to later generations, despite persecutions. Cardinal Napier painted the image of the Church as the Good Samaritan, caring for the wounded. Cardinal Marx, then, stated that there needs to be a public debate on the Synod’s themes.
The entire mission programme, so to speak, of the Synod was outlined by the ubiquitous Cardinal Péter Erdö, in his Relatio ante disceptationem.
^And in the end, the Pope strolled home… (photo courtesy of Charles Le Bourgeois)
Serious and solemn faces this morning in St. Peter’s Basilica – solemn for Mass and serious in the face of the duties lying ahead for the participants in the Synod, among them Cardinal Wim Eijk (sixth from the left, next to Italian Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco).
The actual discussions will start tomorrow, but as ever, the Synod really began at the source and the summit: Jesus Christ in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.
In his brief homily, Pope Francis reminded all present about what the Synod participants are to do (or, as the case may be, not do):
“We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the Lord’s vineyard. Synod Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent… They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.
We are all sinners and can also be tempted to “take over” the vineyard, because of that greed which is always present in us human beings. God’s dream always clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants. We can “thwart” God’s dream if we fail to let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us that wisdom which surpasses knowledge, and enables us to work generously with authentic freedom and humble creativity.
My Synod brothers, to do a good job of nurturing and tending the vineyard, our hearts and our minds must be kept in Jesus Christ by “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). In this way our thoughts and plans will correspond to God’s dream: to form a holy people who are his own and produce the fruits of the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 21:43).”
Cardinal Péter Erdö, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in Hungary, Relator General of the upcoming Synod of Bishops, but today in the first place president of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE) had some choice words to say in order to describe the need for Christ in Europe. The full text of his greeting to Pope Francis is available here.
“Holy Father, Europe needs Christ! Today when a lot is said about the economic crisis, we know that even before Europe was suffering a crisis of humanity and the lack of hope and a perspective on life, which only God can give.
Our very aged society, which focuses more on individualism than on the family, which looks to the world just with the eyes of the economy, reducing everything to profit and usefulness, which has difficulty in welcoming nascent life, the elderly or the disabled, this our European society studded with so many existential margins and disorientated in the search for what is good, true and beautiful, needs Jesus. Our compatriots, even when they are not aware of this, need to find the living and vibrant Jesus Christ in the life of the Church, His Body and His Family.
How many times is the Church really the only reality which remains present and close to the poor, to the elderly, to the pregnant and abandoned mothers, to the young people who are perhaps seeking, but without great hope, meaning for their lives? And we want to be more present! But if faith is lacking, on what will our presence be based? (Cfr. Matt 5:13-14)”
In the run-up to the Synod, the presidents of the European bishops’ conferences are in Rome for their plenary meeting, which has “the family and the future of Europe” as its theme. Most conference presidents were present, although some had sent delegates. For some reason Cardinal Wim Eijk did not attend, nor was a delegate of his listed among the participants. Cardinal Eijk will, however, be in Rome for the Synod. But a permanent Dutch presence in the CCEE is assured by its Vice Secretary General, Father Michel Remery, a priest of the Diocese of Rotterdam.
Cardinal Walter Kasper has come increasingly under fire from fellow cardinals and others in the Church for his comments about marriage, divorce and Communion. While some are concerned by these visible disagreements, and Cardinal Kasper himself having even suggested that his critics are personally attacking him and Pope Francis, this really is simply what Pope Francis has said he wanted: open and free discussion about the topics that the Synod will devote its time to next month. And while I usually don’t want to commit myself to stark distinctions between left and right, orthodox and liberal, in this discussion it really does seem that those who want the Church to change or loosen up her teachings are honestly insulted by those who disagree.
In an interview for Vatican Radio, Cardinal Kasper commented on the situation. I have translated some of his answer which I think are most interesting in this context.
“Of course everyone has the right to publicly state their opinion. Nothing can be brought against that. But I wonder if the entire Synod is not being reduced to a single point. It is about the pastoral challenges in the context of the new evangelisation. That is far broader field. An insider problem is being place at the centre here. What matters is to be able to speak again and discuss the beauty and the Christian understanding of the family, which many today no longer know – it is about far more fundamental problems than simply this one. And secondly: what sort of understanding of the Gospel is this? It is the Good News. One can’t turn it into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not. The Pope wants an open discussion, and that should be held. Then, in the Synod, to listen quietly to one another, in an atmosphere of prayer, and the in the end make a decision for the good of the faithful. I will not enter into polemics.”
“Without doubt the family is the cell of society and the cell of the life of the Church. In the family, in marriage and family, life and faith come closest together. It is an essential reality of life which has been raised to the glory of a sacrament. In that way it is a very vital and central issue for the Church to stand for marriage and family and offer solutions for the crisis that exists today. It is about these pastoral challenges, which is the theme of the Synod, not a war of doctrine. Of course, pastoral care is impossible without being oriented on the truth. But the truth is not an abstract system, but in the end it is Jesus Christ in person, and we need to bring the people close to Christ. In that sense the Synod must be oriented on the truth and understand Tradition as a living and bubbling spring and not as a rigid system.”
“I have posed a question, not simply suggested a solution. And I posed that question in agreement with the Pope. That’s very important for me. I asked, “When a marriage has failed one should do everything to repair it. But when there is no way back, when someone has entered into a new relationship which is, humanly speaking, a happy one, lived in a Christian fashion, when there are children, one can’t give up this new relationship without serious consequence. And we must also see how God offers new chances – and God does. That is His mercy, that He does not let go of anyone of good will. And everyone does what he can in their situation. And I think that this should be pastorally clarified in every individual case, after a period of orientation. That is called the ‘Via poenitentialis’ – but those involved suffer enough already without it. They do not need to perform great acts of penance. But a new orientation is necessary. That should be the sacrament of penance – that is why we have it – and the sacrament of penance also means re-admission to the Eucharist. But as I said, that is not the solution for all cases, presumably for a minority of all people who live in our communities, who suffer from it and have an honest desire for the sacraments, who urgently need the sacraments to deal with their difficult situations.”
In general it is hard to disagree with much of what the cardinal says. He is very right that the entire Synod is indeed being reduced this single topic (and his perceived opponent Cardinal Burke recently said the exact same thing). His words about the importance of family and the Church’s defense of and communication about it are also very important, as are his concerns for those who are involved in a good, Christian, loving second relationship while their first marriage is still canonically valid. There is a problem there, but not with the quality of the second relationship.
And that’s were the problem of the discussion lies. Too many people shift the focus to those second relationships and how the mean Church wants to destroy them and the happiness of those involved. That is a clear untruth. The fact remains that a marriage is a sacrament, and therefore something that can’t be broken by human hands (we simply need to listen to Christ’s words: “What God has joined, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9)). So when a marriage exists (we’re looking at pure existence here, not quality), there can’t be a second marriage next to it. This is, in essence the basis of the argument. All discussion and, indeed, pastoral care needs to be built on it. And at the latter the Synod will look in detail.
Cardinal Kasper’s mistake, in my opinion, is that he sweeps aside this basis when he says, “One can’t turn [the Gospel] into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not.” There must be discussion, certainly, for the good of the faithful. But there are also parameters, which are set by Christ. If we want to follow Him, we must accept and work within His parameters. The Codex of Canon Law is the result of centuries of understanding these parameters and translating them for a host of situations, places and times. There must always be such development, and in that sense the law can change. But it can not be overwritten, swept aside or corrected as if what was once true no longer is. In the end it reflects the Truth that is its founder, Jesus Christ.
The Synod will certainly look at the law, but not in order to change it. No, it will concern itself with translation and communication. How can the pastoral care that the Church now offers be improved, so that what she asks the faithful is also possible for them to achieve. In a recent interview Cardinal Burke said, “It simply makes no sense to talk about mercy which doesn’t respect truth. How can that be merciful?” He’s right. Truth and mercy are not separate. How is it merciful to encourage someone to move further away from the truth that he or she wants to follow? And how are we true to what Christ’s asks of us if we show false mercy?
“Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman who was threatened with death by stoning, but he did not tell her to keep up her good work, to continue unchanged in her ways. He told her to sin no more.”
Words from Cardinal George Pell, until recently the archbishop of Sydney and today the Secretary for the Economy of the Holy See and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals. He writes these words in the foreword to a book that will be publishes in the runup to the Synod of Bishops which is set to begin on 5 October. Like so many before (and undoubtedly after) him, Cardinal Pell is speaking about one of the topics of the Synod: the question of whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion.
The quote above refers to the first part of chapter 8 of the Gospel of John, which relates the meeting of Jesus with a woman accused of adultery. While the Pharisees are intent on stoning her for he misdeed, Jesus offers no accusation, but looks at the scribes and Pharisees instead, turning their eagerness for condemnation against them. If there is one among them without sin, He says, let him throw the first stone. None does, and they leave. Left alone with the woman, Jesus does not condemn her, but sends her on her way with a simple command: “Go away, and from this moment sin no more”.
In the discussions about the Synod and the questions about doctrine and pastoral practice it is expected to tackle, it often seems as if there is a division between mercy on the one hand and doctrine on the other. This is an unnatural division and one that does not reflect the Catholic faith and should not be expected to be honoured by the Synod. Cardinal Pell also writes that “doctrine and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory”.
The example of Jesus given above is, I think, a very important one. For here we have a situation in which someone has sinned and is subject to God’s judgement. Jesus’ way of acting here offers a blueprint of how we must act in similar situations. Approach with mercy: Jesus does not speak unnecessarily, He does not expound on the whys and wherefores of law and condemnation. He expects all involved to know enough about that anyway. Only in the end does He refer to the relevant teachings when He tells the woman to go and change her ways. So He does want her to stop doing hat she has done, and reorder her life to the teachings that He offers and the law He has come to fulfill.
Mercy and doctrine are not mutually exclusive, but strengthen and enrich each other. Those who pretend that we must between one and the other are, quite simply, wrong. We must be merciful like Jesus, and we must fulfill His law. That is why I do not think that the Synod will change the rules in any significant way. What it will look at is how mercy can help in upholding the law, how the pastoral side of the equation can be improved to better allow us and others to follow Christ. A legalistic culture will not achieve that, and neither will a culture that allows everything for the sake of mercy.
Making headlines is not always easy. I sometimes find myself having completed a blog post with relative ease, only to struggle with coming up with an eye-catching headline. They need to be short, interesting and true to the content of the article they announce and, in essence, summarise. I imagine that these are the same concern of those who write for a living for newspapers, journals and on websites. But in recent days too many have failed to follow the rules…
Yesterday, 20 Roman couples were married in St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope Francis. This is pretty rare for Popes to do for the simple reason of their many other duties. Pope Benedict XVI never did it, and Pope St. John Paul II only got around to it once over the 27 years of his pontificate. But as he is the bishop of the Diocese of Rome, witnessing the marriage of some of the faithful of his diocese is a wonderful opportunity to be near to his closest flock: the Romans themselves.
The couples were from all walks of life and a broad range in age, and all had their own stories, as the Pope hinted at in his homily: “The path is not always a smooth one, free of disagreements, otherwise it would not be human. It is a demanding journey, at times difficult, and at times turbulent, but such is life!” Rare are the couples whose story is the stereotypical romantic one: they meet, fall in love, get married, have children and live happily ever after. I think it is safe to assume that none of the twenty couples married yesterday have had such smooth sailing. And that is what inspired many headlines.
“Pope marries sinners,” we read. “Francis overthrows tradition by marrying cohabitating couples!” and more along such lines. The essence of all this was that Pope Francis, they said, in contrast to Catholic teaching and the practice of the Church for years, married people who were living in sin. But was that really true?
The simple answer is no. In reports about yesterday’s ceremony we read that one of the grooms has had a previous married nullified and that a bride already had a child. Others were apparently already living together for a long time before marrying. While it is objectively so that the Church has its concern about children being born outside marriage and cohabitation while not married, these in themselves have never been reason for the Church refusing to marry couples. In fact, it is simply so that the Church gladly welcomes any couple who wants to receive the sacrament of marriage.
Marriage is a sacrament that includes both rights and duties. To oneself, to one’s partner, to God and to the community. It is good for the future husband and wife to be well aware of these, be willing to accept them and know how to include them in their lives together. That is a lifelong process, but it starts before marriage begins.
From the outside we may notice many irregularities – a child outside of marriage, a previous marriage – but we should not jump to conclusions about these 20 Roman couples. All we know is that these irregularities are now regularised, and that is reason for joy.
There is certainly no reason to see sins and new developments where there are none. Pope Francis did not do anything that could not be done before, and nothing that priests across the world don’t do regular (although they would rarely marry forty people in one go). What is remarkable, however, is that it happened. That 20 couples said yes to each other, promised to stand together in good and bad times and let their love bear fruit and new life in all sorts of ways. That’s the true headline.
Photo credit:  Alessandra Tarantino/AP,  Paul Haring/CNS